Sometimes things are not what you had hoped them to be, and this was certainly the case with this trip. Finally after two 1 week trips with so much to do and not enough time I finally found myself able to take a long trip to India. But on the ground, the reality persisted that I was truly too late, the change in the last year has been relentless with so many metre gauge segments closed and diesel lines electried. Couple that with immediately getting sick on the 3rd day of the trip didn’t set a good tone for the entire trip. There was alot of unpleasantness but in the end also alot of great images and memories, the temporary pain quickly fades but a good photograph lasts forever. That being said this could well be my last rail trip to India, the classic Indian Railways that I love is fast disappearing behind the ever advancing march of electrification and gauge conversion, couple that with the loss of the Indrail Pass which has made travelling far more difficult. I will be back but by my next visit the cultural attractions will likely outweigh any rail destinations. Below is a short summary of the trip and a few images, more detailed reports to follow.
The original plan which quickly fell apart was to start in Delhi where I would meet up with German friends Thomas Kabisch and Robin Dunkel. From there we would take a short trip to the Kalka Shimla narrow gauge railway before continuing onto the Kangra Valley Railway going via Amritsar to see the Golden Temple. After a week on the Kangra we would head to the northeast via Dhuri Junction to spend several days on the metre gauge between Philibit and Bahraich. At the time of planning it was very much in question whether the line would still be open which further complicated our travel plans. From there I would join them for a half day in Gwalior then return to Delhi to spend more time with family and attend the Indian Steam Railway conference. From there I would continue to Jaipur to visit my fathers side of the family then continue to Gujarat where I would meet up with the Germans and Mark Torkington form the UK for a Lion Safari and to explore the Gir metre gauge network. From there I would part ways with the Germans as they had to return home and continue south on the Konkan Railway. After several days on the Konkan it would be off to Bangalore for Christmas with the relatives. At this point I would be reaching the end of my E-Tourist Visa so after a visit to the tip of the country in Rameshwaram I would head to Sri Lanka for two weeks before returning to India on a fresh visa and travel the eastern half of the country before eventually returning to Delhi to fly out. As said earlier things did not exactly go to plan…..
Thoughts for the prospective visitor
I hate to start out the report sounding so negative because there’s alot I still love about India and the Indian Railways, those who are experiencing it for the first time will likely not be frustrated by the same things as having seen the railways change so much over the years. The basic fun of being able to ride in the doorways, the open windows and colorful station scenes remain if you can focus on the bigger scene rather than the smaller details like locomotives, signals and what not you will have a better time than me. In some ways this trip was also a test of how feasible it is to do a big Indian rail journey without a pass. For my last two trips, I have relied on the Indrail Pass supplied through S.D. Enterprises in London, however, the Indian Railways discontinued the pass with no replacement so for now each ticket must be purchased individually. I had an Indrail sleeper class pass as it was the last thing still available however I still had to book all my overnight trips requiring AC through the railways IRCTC website. My travelling partners, however, had no Indrail pass so had to buy unreserved tickets for day travel at the station. They seemed to get by fine but even having the Indrail sleeper pass allowed so much flexibility while avoiding being stuck in some truly wedged unreserved coaches, on several occasions I was able to claim vacant seats for day travel in sleeper class and even berths for some short unplanned night movements. The Indrail pass will truly be missed, any future trip will have to be more carefully planned as without the pass there would have been some truly miserable journeys. Thankfully E-Ticketing has become easier, once you sign up using IRCTC you can use the much more user-friendly Cleartrip website or mobile phone app to book your tickets for a small additional fee. On past trips I have largely made all hotel reservations via booking.com and had good luck with it, on this trip my new approach since my plan was so loose was to just find a hotel on the spot in person or using google maps on my phone. It worked out alright most times but I wasted an incredible amount of time doing this in some places. As with the train tickets I recommend booking all of this in advance, most likely you will get a better deal than you would in person anyways. In closing, if you have never been nows the time to go to India, there is still enough of the old Indian Railways left for the first time visitor but it will become much harder to find it the coming years.
The first part of the trip was intended to be a 3 day visit to the Kalka-Shimla railway, however things quickly went wrong in all departments. Firstly the weather was unexpectedly cloudy and even rainy at times ruining out photography plans. Secondly and worse I first came down with a cold probably from the freezing hotel room in Kalka and then subsequently got the worst case of “Delhi Belly” I had ever had. Thomas and Robin had some luck but for me most of my memories are of the hotel room in Shimla. To top it off the whole thing put me in such a bad mood that I somehow forgot to save my DSLR photos so all I have as a record are a few mirrorless snapshots. Don’t expect a trip report about this part, no one wants to read about me sitting on the toilet for 2 days….
The Golden Temple and Amritsar
Having made it down from Shimla I headed west to rejoin my friends in Pathankot, there was no direct train so I had a several hour layover where I went to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was easily my favorite “culutural experience” of the trip. Unlike many of the popular tourist destinations in India which are full of touts and require “foreigner rates” that are far more than the Indian price, the Golden Temple is both free and truly peaceful. Still feeling quite sick I was more than happy to spend my whole time in Amristar sitting by the water watching the giant fish swim by, I’m far from a religious person but this place is enough to make anyone feel spiritual.
Finally, the trip started turning around a bit, the Kangra Valley is easily my favorite of the Indian hill railways with fantastic scenery unlike anything else I have seen in India and still retaining its charm with old coaches and locomotives, unlike the others which cater heavily to tourists the Kangra feels much more like my favorite metre gauge lines, authentic but still full of charm that is all but gone from the broad gauge. While in Kangra we also visited the famous hill station of Dharamshala, the home of the Dali Lama since he was forced to flee Tibet due to the Chinese invasion.
After a few days in “Indian Austria” as I called it, it was back to reality of cows, smog and ALCO’s. From Pathankot we caught a direct train to Dhuri Junction in Punjab which is home to one of the best sets of semaphores anywhere in India with the entire 4 way junction controlled solely by lower quadrant semaphores. As with everything good in India the semaphores at Dhuri are very much on borrowed time as electrification work nears.
Due to a train cancellation, we lost a day on the NER going via Delhi instead of by direct train to Bareilly. The NER has one of the largest remaining clusters of meter gauge left and 3 days simply was not enough. This was a true glimpse into what the metre gauge was like in its heydey with trains on the former Bareilly to Lucknow mainline still reaching 70 kph, in past times the express trains had done 90 kph here. After reaching Philibit by broad gauge trains we explored the Philibit to Mailani segment and then a portion of the Mailani to Bahraich line which passes through the densely forested Dudwha national part which is still home to a sizeable tiger population.
Delhi and ISRS conference
Feeling still not 100% at my best and honestly disappointed about having to leave the NER MG so quickly I decided to skip Gwalior and spend a few days in Delhi recuperating. In Delhi I attended the Indian Steam Railway Society annual convention which is held to discuss railway presentation matters in India. I was invited by JL Singh who I had been in contact with about a project to preserve the Mhow – Sanwad metre gauge segment, you can read more about that project here. The first day I was introduced to several other railfans, some that it turned out I already knew via Facebook and listened to presentations about preservation projects in India and abroad. The second day we travelled behind the Fairy Queen to Rewari to visit the steam shed which holds several broad gauge and metre gauge steam locomotives that have been restored to operating condition.
All trips to India require a stop in Jaipur, no not for trains (its not that interesting for that anymore…) but to visit my grandmother. The weather was grey and drab but my grandmother still insisted I go out and see some of the cultural sites. I visited the City Palace and Amer and Jaigarh fort located just outside the city. The architecture in Jaipur still amazes me even after seeing it several times, however the unusually grey weather did not do it justice for photos, next time I am in Jaipur hopefully the weather will cooperate.
Mavli – Marwar
This was an unplanned day as all planned things had gone by the wayside, I had wanted to continue onto Gujarat to travel the Saurashtra lines but unable to get a reservation, as it turned out that wouldn’t have really mattered. So instead I joined my friends in Marwar to go photograph the Mavli-Marwar metre gauge line the next day. While exceptionally scenic the line has only two daylight trains making it very difficult to photograph. But for all the walking we were rewarded by 3 good photos that perhaps we were only ones to ever take.
MG in Gujarat
After a hellish overnight trip due to a waitlist ticket not confirming I reached the next bastion of metre gauge in India in Gujarat. I had previously done the now closed Ahmedabad to Udaipur line but this was my first time venturing into the Gir network. The line runs through the Gir National forest known as the only place to see the Asiatic lion in the wild, I met up with Mark T from the UK for a wildlife safari in the park, unfortunately we did not see any Lions but we had far better luck with the lilac lions of the Metre gauge! We found the line to be quite scenic with several stone arch bridges and plenty of semaphore signals. We finished the tour of the Gujarat MG with a visit to Junagadh to climb the famous Girnar and then spent a night at Khijadiya to photograph the semaphore signals under the stars before continuing on by broad gauge to surrendanagar the next morning.
Semaphores in Gujarat
Due to other plans falling apart I spent several days doing a bad job of covering the semaphore territory of the Saurashtra lines. Due to being flat worn out from the previous adventures I spent far more time in the hotel than I should have but still managed a few good images and some quality ALCO hauled travel. The Saurashtra lines are a paradise for those who like the traditional Indian Rail scene, there are still tons of both upper quadrant and lower quadrant semaphores and ALCO locomotives still haul most of the passenger trains. Of course this is all likely to change soon as doubling work has begun north of Wankaner which will eliminate the semaphores.
Mumbai is another common stop as I have alot of family there, it allowed a quick chance to recharge myself and mend my bag which was literally being held together by threads. As usual with these family stops I didnt see very much of the city but made a point to stop by Victoria terminus to get some photos of the beautiful station building, truly one of the best in the world.
The Konkan to me is India’s last best railway, built only in the late 1990s the railway still has the charm and scenic beauty of many lines built well before it. The line runs along the countries west coast between Mumbai and Mangalore via Goa and crosses many high bridges and through long tunnels to traverse the challenging terrain. Soon sadly the line will be electrified and partially doubled and will likely lose much of its appeal in the process. This was easily my favorite part of the trip with plentiful ALCO hauled trains, great scenery, pleasant climate and friendly people. If you want a good place to visit on a first time in India Goa and Karnatka is an excellent choice.
Over the Western Ghats to Bangalore
I was very reluctant to leave the Konkan but it was nearly Christmas so I headed to Bangalore to spend it with my relatives. It was like being in America again, Bangalore is a world apart from the rest of India with many places where one could feel like they were somewhere in America with big shopping malls, craft breweries, giant Christmas trees and of course horrendous traffic. I was too busy feeling like being at home to take much of any photos.
My plan to travel via small diesel lines to Rameshwaram had fallen apart so after riding the door on a full but not wedged Bangalore to Chennai slow passenger for 6 hours I had a few hours to check out Chennai’s two train stations. Chennai Egmore is perhaps the most beautiful train station in India still featuring a Victorian era trainshed unlike anything else I had seen in the country. Thankfully my gamble of getting a waitlist ticket on the “Boat Mail” to Rameshwaram paid off and I boarded with a RAC ticket and amazingly then got a full berth once onboard. It was off to the final destination on this part of the Indian trip.
Rameshwaram had been a bucket list destination for me for years since I first began planning trips to India. Rameshwaram sits on Pamban Island which is unique in that it is served by the Indian rail network, linked by a 2 KM long bridge to the mainland. This bridge is one of the most famous in India and was the longest in the country until a few years ago. The railway had once extended to Danushkodi further on the island where there was a ferry to Sri Lanka. However in 1964 Danuskodi was all but destroyed by a cyclone and the railway abandoned. Today the railway terminates in Rameshwaram but a new paved road has been built to Danushkodi enabling one to visit the ruins of the town including the old railway station.
The final stop of the trip was Tiruchirappalli, generally referred to as just Trichy, by virtue of it having the cheapest airfare to Sri Lanka. After a rather lazy morning I made a quick trip to see my namesake Kaveri River which flows through town and also visit the cities famous Rock Fort. The fort offers a great view of the city and its colorful buildings, as usual I was wishing I hadn’t wasted so much time in the hotel but regardless it was time for my flight to Sri Lanka. As mentioned earlier I had planned to return to Indian but I ended up liking Sri Lanka so much that I scrubbed the rest of my plans and spent the rest of the month in Sri Lanka. Hopefully someday I can make the planned east coast trip to India.